Evelyn Pringle February 12, 2008
GlaxoSmithKline recently received greetings from a Congressional Committee, asking the company to explain the findings in a report unsealed last month in a lawsuit which shows that Glaxo knew as early as 1989 that Paxil increased the risk of suicidal behavior in patients by more than 8-fold compared to patients who received a placebo.
In a February 6, 2008 letter, Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, is asking Glaxo to explain why the American public was never adequately informed of this risk until May 2006 in a “Dear Healthcare Professional” letter which reported a “higher frequency of suicidal behavior” associated with Paxil as compared to placebo.
The report showing the 8-fold suicide risk, by Harvard instructor and psychiatrist Joseph Glenmullen, was unsealed on January 18, 2008, by a federal judge in a US District Court in Sacramento, California in the Paxil suicide case of O’Neal v SmithKline Beecham d/b/a GlaxoSmithKline, filed by the surviving family members of 13-year-old Benjamin Bratt.
Dr Glenmullen was retained as an expert in the case by the California-based Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman law firm.
On January 30, 2008, the court dismissed the lawsuit on the basis of the Bush Administration’s new preemption policy, largely unknown to most Americans, which says that once the FDA approves a drug and its label, citizens may not sue a company for failing to warn about a risk not listed on the label, even in cases like this where the plaintiff can prove that the company knew about the risk and intentionally concealed it.
SSRI’s are antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and include Paxil, Eli Lilly’s Prozac, Zoloft by Pfizer and Celexa and Lexapro marketed by Forest Labs. Wyeth’s Effexor, Lilly’s Cymbalta and Glaxo’s Wellbutrin are not considered SSRI’s, but they also carry a warning about an increased risk of suicidality in young people.
Two SSRI suicide cases are now awaiting a joint decision from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals for which oral arguments took place in December 2007.
In the case of Colacicco v Apotex, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania was the first to dismiss a failure-to-warn claim based on the new preemption policy, and in McNellis v Pfizer, the US District Court for the District of New Jersey found no preemption.
Also unbeknownst to most Americans, the Bush Administration is instructing judges to dismiss the lawsuits against the SSRI makers in amicus briefs filed by the government’s top attorneys, who also attend hearings when necessary to argue on behalf of the SSRI makers during oral arguments on motions to dismiss.
In fact, in regard to requiring a warning about suicide, during oral arguments in the Third Circuit, Bush Administration attorney Sharon Swingle told the court that the FDA “had again and again and again made an expert determination that the warning was not appropriate.”
She maintained that the claims were preempted because the SSRI makers were not allowed to add warnings to the label under any circumstances without prior approval from the FDA.
At one point, the court asked an attorney for an SSRI maker, “assume for the moment that you had reasonable evidence of an association between your product and a serious hazard or a serious possibility of an enhanced suicide risk.”
Under federal regulations, “what would be your obligation?”
The attorney stated, “our obligation would be to take that information to the FDA, advise the FDA of the information.”
“It then would be the FDA’s determination whether that represented a substantial relationship,” he told the court.
“So if you had evidence internally that there’s an enhanced risk of suicide, you would go to the FDA,” the court said, and asked, “And how long would that take?”
“I do not know the answer to that, your Honor,” the attorney said, and the court asked, “Could it take months?”
“I imagine it would depend on the seriousness –,” the attorney stated.
“But isn’t there a significant possibility that additional people then might have the same consequence that happened here with McNellis, or with Colacicco and McNellis’s father?” the court asked.
The attorney said, “on the basis of the information that was available we would take it per FDA directive to the FDA and they would make the determination whether the label should be changed.”
“Other people could then,” the court continued, “possibly have an enhanced risk of suicide and other people may commit suicide as a result of taking your product?”
“We would be bound by law to comply with the FDA, then to comply with its directives,” the attorney replied.
“Are they requiring that you go through them first rather than act on your own?” the court asked.
“That’s exactly correct, your Honor, because there is the bigger issue of the –” the attorney stated.
However, at the end of the hearing, Pennsylvania attorney Derek Braslow proved beyond any doubt that the claims made by the Bush Administration attorney and the attorneys for the drug makers were blatant lies, when he informed the court that Glaxo had “independently, strengthened their warning in May 2004 to warn about increased suicidality and worsening depression in everyone, not just children.”
“There was specifically in bold letters a new warning with respect to increased suicidality and worsening depression in May 2004,” he stated.
“Glaxo changed the label on their own without FDA approval,” Mr Braslow told the court.
Glaxo did it again in May 2006, he said, when they sent out a “Dear Healthcare Professional” letter and warned about the increased risk of suicidality and suicidal behaviors with Paxil in persons of all ages.
During oral arguments in the O’Neal case on January 21, 2008, Glaxo’s preemption argument was presented by King & Spalding attorney Mark Brown, who just happens to be a former Associate Chief Counsel for the FDA from the first Bush Administration.
The family intends to ask the court to reconsider the ruling in the O’Neal case, according to a statement by Baum Hedlund.
In his report, Dr Glenmullen sums up the inadequacy of the system, including the FDA, that allowed Glaxo to keep this vital information hidden from prescribing doctors and patients for nearly 2 decades and states, in part:
“One of the most sobering aspects of the story of Paxil-induced suicidality is that GlaxoSmithKline was not forthcoming with its data demonstrating the risk and regulatory agencies like the FDA did not take the initiative to get to the bottom of and expose the true risk.”
“Rather, the impetus came from attorneys and medical experts surprised by what they found in GlaxoSmithKline’s confidential documents, which only came to light through litigation.”
“The GlaxoSmithKline documents that have so-far made it into the public record have in turn been critical to educating patients, the public, and the media about the true risk. The media – particularly the BBC in England – played a crucial role in turning the tide in the history of Paxil-induced suicidality.”
According to Dr Glenmullen, “it was the diligent efforts of plaintiff’s attorneys that forced GlaxoSmithKline to divulge the inaccurate counting method to the FDA.”
Another leading expert on pharmacology, Dr Peter Breggin, warns that an 8-fold increased risk of suicidality in controlled clinical trials could mean 80-fold in actual practice. “We can’t determine exactly how much greater the risk will be in clinical practice but it will be astronomically greater,” he advises.
In actual practice, he explains, many patients are already suicidal when they start taking the drug, increasingly the likelihood that the drug can push them over the edge.
Despite the warnings to watch patients closely, Dr Breggin says, busy doctors do not monitor patients properly. He explains that they are almost never evaluated for suicidality and are often given multiple drugs at the same time, by doctors who know little about their adverse effects on the mind.
Glaxo is facing lawsuits from surviving family members of Paxil suicide victims all over the country and is attempting to use preemption to avoid public trials for good reason. The first case to go before a jury in Wyoming in 2001, involved a man who shot his wife, daughter and infant granddaughter before shooting himself after being on Paxil for just a matter of days.
The trial resulted in a verdict against Glaxo for $6.4 million after the jury weighed the expert testimony of famed pharmacologist Dr David Healy, who presented a summary of Glaxo’s hidden suicide data on Paxil, against the testimony of the industry-funded SSRI defender Dr John Mann, whose name appears on many of the studies issued over the years, some as late as 2007, that steadfastly proclaim that SSRI’s are not linked to suicide and should be prescribed to children.
In addition to Dr Healy’s revelations about hidden data showing that Glaxo was aware of the increased risk, Dr Mann’s credibility was likely weighed against the fact that he had received over $30 million in research funding from drug companies between the early 1990’s and the trial in 2001, which was brought out during his testimony by Houston attorney Andy Vickery.
Mr Vickery also established that, roughly 10 years and $30 million earlier, Dr Mann had published a paper stating that SSRI’s could increase suicidality in a small subset of patients.
In his report, Dr Glenmullen states that, since Glaxo had the original data in 1989 that showed a greater than eightfold increased risk, it should have warned doctors and patients about the risk “a decade-and-a-half ago when Paxil was first approved by the FDA.”
The report includes portions of an April 29, 1991 report, written by Glaxo psychiatrist Dr Geoffrey Dunbar, sent to the FDA in response to a specific request for information on suicidality in which Glaxo openly lies in stating: “analyses of our prospective, clinical trials for depression show that patients who were randomized to Paxil therapy were at no greater risk for suicidal ideation or behavior than were patients randomized to placebo or other active control therapies.”
Dr Glenmullen notes the importance of the date that this false data was submitted because the FDA had scheduled a hearing with a nine-member advisory panel for September 20, 1991, to discuss concerns raised a year earlier about the possibility of Prozac making patients suicidal. Paxil was not approved for use in the US until December 2002.
In his report, Dr Glenmullen points out that 5 of the 9 members on the advisory panel had conflicts of interest with drug makers and that 2 psychiatrists, Dr David Dunner of the University of Washington in Seattle and Dr Stuart Montgomery from England, had done research on Prozac for Eli Lilly, and later played crucial roles in Glaxo’s publishing of what he calls “bad” suicide numbers in the Paxil story.
Dr Glenmullen’s report includes portions of a September 19, 1991, memo distributed to over 20 senior staff the day before the hearing with a “Statement to be used to respond to inquiries re Paxil/Suicide,” which claims explicitly that during GlaxoSmithKline’s studies: “the incidence of suicide was lower among patients receiving Paxil than among those receiving placebo.”
This was the statement the company ordered employees to make, even though 5 patients on Paxil committed suicide while no patients in the placebo group did. In addition, Dr Glenmullen points out that, up to 1989, seriously suicidal patients were excluded from Glaxo’s studies, and therefore “anyone who became seriously suicidal during the studies only became so after being given Paxil or a placebo.”
Yet the actual numbers show that there were 40 suicide attempts in the clinical trials by patients taking Paxil compared to 1 suicide attempt in the placebo groups.
Despite the poor quality of the data available to the advisory committee, and despite the many conflicts of interest of its members, one third of the members still voted for a warning in 1991, Dr Glenmullen points out.
Three months later, in December 1991, Dr Dunner, together with Glaxo psychiatrist Dr Dunbar, presented Glaxo’s Paxil data with the “bad” numbers at a meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP) in Puerto Rico.
During the presentation, the doctors told the ACNP: “Suicide and suicide attempts occurred less frequently with Paxil than with either placebo or active control,” according to the Glenmullen report.
The ACNP’s members are considered prominent academic psychiatrists who specialize in pharmacology, and the group has issued a number of position papers over the years which consistently denied a link between SSRI’s and suicidality.
Dr Mann led an ACNP task force which included Dr Fred Goodwin, Dr Charles O’Brien and Dr Robinson, which supposedly reviewed all the clinical trial data on SSRI’s and issued a consensus statement with the position that SSRI’s did not increase the risk of suicidal behavior, which was published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology in 1993.
In March 1995, Dr Dunner, Dr Montgomery and Dr Dunbar published the paper, “Reduction of suicidal thoughts with paroxetine in comparison with reference antidepressants and placebo,” in the European journal Neuropsychopharmacology. This paper included a table with the “bad” numbers and claimed that other antidepressants were more likely to increase the risk of suicide than Paxil.
The paper specifically states: “Consistent reduction in suicides, attempted suicides, and suicidal thoughts, and protection against emergent suicidal thoughts suggest that Paxil has advantages in treating the potentially suicidal patients.”
On July 5, 1995, Glaxo’s marketing department issued a memo urging its sales force to use the Dunner-Dunbar paper to reassure doctors who were concerned over Paxil-related suicide that there was no need for concern.
The fact is, documents obtained in litigation prove that the FDA has known about the suicide risks of SSRI’s for roughly 23 years. Two years before Prozac was approved, in May 1985, the FDA’s chief investigator, Dr Richard Kapit, wrote: “Unlike traditional tricyclic antidepressants Fluoxetine’s profile of adverse side effects more closely resembles that of a stimulant drug than one that causes sedation.”
“It is Fluoxetine’s particular profile of adverse side-effects which may perhaps, in the future give rise to the greatest clinical liabilities in the use of this medication to treat depression,” he noted.
Dr Kapit’s review described data from 46 clinical trials with a total of 1,427 patients and under the section, “Catastrophic and Serious Events,” he listed 52 cases of “egregiously abnormal laboratory reports which were the reason for early termination,” and “additional adverse event reports not reported by the company were revealed on microfiche.”
“In most cases,” he wrote, “these adverse events involved the onset of an unreported psychotic episode.”
There were ten reports of psychotic episodes including 2 reports of completed suicides, 13 attempted suicides, 4 seizures, and 4 reports of movement disorders. In 1985, Dr Kapit recommended “labeling warning the physician that such signs and symptoms of depression may be exacerbated by this drug”.
When Prozac was approved, no such warning was issued.
Two weeks after the FDA advisory panel met in February 2004 to review the data on SSRI’s to determine whether they were linked to suicide, Dr Healy sent a report to Peter Pitts, Associate Commissioner for External Relations, at the FDA, in response to an invitation by Dr Robert Temple for a submission of the details of studies referred to in the course of a presentation at the meeting.
“A great number of the patient testimonies in the course of the Feb 2nd hearing were from individuals who became suicidal on an SSRI when their underlying disorder was Lyme Disease, migraine or a condition such as social phobia,” Dr Healy pointed out.
He also noted that this had been the case in the 1991 hearings, when it was framed by FDA’s Dr Temple as follows:
“The discussion we heard earlier showed that people who commit suicide are highly likely to have a diagnosis of depression, which means that somebody identified them as in a high-risk category. But there were still a significant number of people who committed suicide without having that sort of diagnosis and I guess I would like some advice or discussion on who those people were.”
“The anecdotes that one hears that are most evocative to me anyway are not the ones where people who have a 20-year history of suicidal ideation and then finally do it – that is not too surprising – it is where they assert that there has never been anything in their minds like that before and yet now they have suddenly become excessively concerned with suicide and may even do it.”
Dr Healy’s analysis submitted to the FDA included the data from the pediatric trials on suicidality and hostility, including some that were concealed for years. To distinguish the difference between suicide caused by SSRI’s verses suicide caused by the underlying depression, he separated the data on children who were treated for depression and children who were treated for obsessive compulsive disorder or social phobia.
The analysis found that SSRI’s can cause some children who are not depressed to become suicidal when taking the drugs for other conditions. From a pool of 931 depressed patients taking SSRI’s versus 811 depressed patients taking placebo, Dr Healy determined that there were 52 suicidal acts by patients on SSRI’s versus 18 in the placebo group.
In a pool of 638 patients taking SSRI’s for other disorders versus 562 patients taking a placebo, there were 10 suicidal acts in the SSRI group versus 1 in the placebo group.
When these data sets were combined, there were 62 episodes of suicidality in the 1,569 patients on SSRI’s versus only 19 episodes in the 1,373 patients on a placebo.
In his submission to the FDA, Dr Healy also explained that he had conducted his own trial on Zoloft in 2000 with 20 “healthy volunteers,” meaning they had no mental disorder when entering the trial, and two of the Zoloft patients became suicidal. This type of study provides the strongest evidence of drug-induced suicidality because it’s impossible for drug companies to claim that a patient became suicidal as a result of the underlying depression.
Seven years ago, during the Wyoming jury trial involving the tragic Paxil-induced murder-suicide, the man’s physician testified that he may not have prescribed Paxil if a warning regarding homicide and suicide had been added to the drug’s label.
In his report released last month, Dr Glenmullen offers the following heart-wrenching conclusion to the court: “It is my opinion to a reasonable degree of medical probability that if GlaxoSmithKline had provided a warning all these years, Benjamin Bratt would still be alive today.”
On April 24, 2004, the Lancet medical journal published an editorial entitled, “Depressing Research,” with the following comments that surely ring doubly true today for the Bratt family, as well as all the other families whose children committed suicide while on SSRI’s:
“It is hard to imagine the anguish experienced by the parents, relatives, and friends of a child who has taken his or her own life. That such an event could be precipitated by a supposedly beneficial drug is a catastrophe. The idea of that drug’s use being based on the selective reporting of favourable research should be unimaginable.”